I wonder sometimes about what a better society than ours would be. What should our goals be as we try to improve?
As our society improves and we get more efficient, I like to imagine a future where we don’t have to work as much. That seems like a nice thing to aim for. Universal basic income (UBI) seems like one possible solution. If we could afford to give everybody a fixed minimal income, people could work less and still have a basic amount of wealth needed to survive. But I’m not yet convinced whether UBI is the correct answer to describe an ideal future.
Robots and machines can do a lot of work for us. This is progress that could be applauded, but it’s feared instead. The main reason why we’re afraid of offloading work to machines is that we can’t live without money, and we can’t get money unless we are productive members of society. Capitalism is set up to make us want to stay busy. We seem to be stuck in a rut where we never stop building more things and make up fake jobs to stay busy.
If we let robots and machines do a lot of work for us, the downside is that many people will lose their jobs. This is where UBI comes in. If robots and machines and other general improvements allow us to create value more efficiently, the government could then redistribute the extra value to everyone in the form of a basic income. Unemployment will be feared less if you don’t have to worry about how you’ll feed your family. UBI in some form seems necessary if we want to make life easier for everyone while still using money to pay for things. But I’m not yet convinced whether it’s the correct answer to describe an ideal future.
Making sure everyone has a basic ability to live a decent life sounds like a great goal for a government that exists to serve its citizens. On the other hand, capitalism promises rewards for great work, and that’s what motivated a lot of people to do great things. People spend millions of dollars researching medicine because a breakthrough drug could be worth billions. Redistribution of wealth will take away from those rewards, and a loss in motivation might lead to a decline in innovation.
One interesting example of UBI is The Alaska Permanent Fund. This program was set up as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was being finished in 1977 and has been giving $1000-2000 to every citizen since 1982. This isn’t exactly UBI because it is tied to a new form of income that Alaska had access to, so it isn’t just redistribution of wealth. But in general, it has been working very well, and hasn’t increased unemployment or made people lazier.